Sarah Cannon was ready to start her vacation last week on Hawaii’s big island. She, along with her in-laws, her husband and their three kids, was ticketed to fly nonstop from Denver to Kona for about a week in the tropics.
Instead, Cannon and her family got to experience an extreme case of 2022 summer travel woes firsthand on a winding journey that involved mechanical issues, three different airplanes, multiple flight crews, an extra layover in California and a series of incremental delays that ultimately added up to almost 24 hours.
“It was laughable the number of texts and emails I got from United,” Cannon said. “We’ve literally spent thousands of dollars for a direct flight, I should’ve gone with a cheaper two-stop option.”
For her trouble, Cannon said, United Airlines gave her around $30 in meal vouchers per person and a form letter of apology over email.
And that may be all she’s going to get.
What are you entitled to if your flight is delayed?
U.S. airlines are required by the Department of Transportation to give passengers refunds if their flights are outright canceled, but the rules around delays are a little murkier.
There’s no official requirement for passengers to receive a refund or reimbursement as a result of a flight delay. Even the DOT’s website can be frustratingly vague for travelers.
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“DOT has not specifically defined ‘significant delay,’ ” the site says. “Whether you are entitled to a refund depends on a lot of factors – such as the length of the delay, the length of the flight, and your particular circumstances.”
The rules are different – and more traveler-friendly – in Europe, where laws require airlines to compensate passengers at least 250 euros for delays of three hours or more, and up to 600 euros for longer delays on long-distance flights. Domestic flights in the U.S. have few protections if something goes wrong. For the most part, it’s up to individual airlines to decide how to compensate their passengers after a delay.
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“There’s no specific policy on compensations,” said Shaiy Howard, president and CEO of Travel by Shaiy, a travel agency based in South Florida. “Just keep in mind that all airlines vary. When you purchase your airline ticket, in the terms and conditions there can be delays and normally they say you’re not entitled to compensation for certain delays like weather.”
Here’s what each of the major carriers said they do in the event of a significant delay:
American Airlines flight delay compensation policy
Passengers can receive a refund for unused portions of their ticket if they decide not to travel after a delay of 90 minutes or more, American Airlines spokesperson Andrea Koos told USA TODAY in an email. Customers may also receive compensation for delay-related hotel stays, depending on the cause of the delay, according to the airline’s contract of carriage.
Delta Air Lines flight delay compensation policy
Eligibility for compensation is determined on a case-by-case basis when a delay is caused by maintenance, crew scheduling, or late-arriving equipment not caused by weather. Compensation can include a meal, hotel, or ground transportation vouchers, Delta Air Lines spokesperson Catherine Morrow told USA TODAY in an email.
United Airlines flight delay compensation policy
Eligibility for compensation is determined on a case-by-case basis for each individual passenger, a United spokesperson told USA TODAY by email.
Southwest Airlines flight delay compensation policy
Customers can request a refund in the event of a delay if they choose not to travel. Compensation for those who still take their delayed flights is determined on a case-by-case basis, the airline said in a statement emailed to USA TODAY.
JetBlue flight delay compensation policy
JetBlue has an escalating compensation structure. The minimum compensation is $50 in travel credits after a three-hour departure delay, and the credit adjusts upward by $50 for every additional hour. The credit maxes out at $200 for delays of six hours or more.
Once passengers have boarded the aircraft, the compensation structure is $100 in credit for a delay between three and five hours, $175 in credit for a delay between five and six hours, or a $250 credit for a delay of six hours or more.
Passengers are also entitled to compensation if they are delayed on the ground upon arrival, with a $50 credit for a delay of one to two hours, a $125 credit for a delay of two to three hours and a $200 credit for a delay of three hours or more.
Spirit Airlines flight delay compensation policy
Spirit’s contract of carriage provides no guarantee for compensation or vouchers in the event of a delay.
Frontier Airlines flight delay compensation policy
Frontier’s contract of carriage provides no guarantee for compensation or vouchers in the event of a delay. Frontier did not respond to USA TODAY’s request for their policy.
Alaska Airlines flight delay compensation policy
“There is no minimum compensation nor a minimum delay. As we work to care for guests impacted by a delay, compensation is determined by the totality of circumstances,” a representative told USA TODAY in an email statement.
Hawaiian Airlines flight delay compensation policy
In the event of a delay of four hours or more not caused by weather, passengers may be entitled to hotel, meal and/or ground transportation vouchers, or travel credits, according to the airline’s contract of carriage.
Avelo Airlines flight delay compensation policy
Passengers are entitled to a minimum $25 travel credit after a two-hour delay not caused by weather. That amount can be adjusted on a case-by-case basis, Courtney Goff, a spokesperson for the airline, told USA TODAY in an email.
Breeze Airways flight delay compensation policy
Passengers are entitled to a minimum $20 credit after a 90-minute delay not caused by weather or air traffic control. That amount can be adjusted on a case-by-case basis Gareth Edmondson-Jones, a spokesperson for the airline, told USA TODAY in an email.
What else should travelers know?
The three biggest pieces of advice experts offered were to join the airline’s frequent flyer program, take the earliest flight out if possible and buy travel insurance.
“I advise all my clients to purchase travel protection,” said Howard, from Travel by Shaiy. Even if an airline doesn’t compensate you following a delay, travel insurance may reimburse you for expenses like rental cars or hotel rooms that you incur as a result.
She added that it’s a good idea to get the airline’s app ahead of your trip and speak to the gate agent during the delay.
Marc Casto, president of Flight Centre Travel Group, said it’s also important to pay attention to which kind of ticket you purchase.
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“At the stage of buying, I would encourage travelers not to buy the cheapest fare. Those are the most likely passengers to get bumped,” he said.
Casto also said flyers should try to resolve their issue through the app or a messaging platform, which is usually faster than calling the customer service number or waiting in line at the airport.
Booking through a third party like Expedia or Orbitz can also add a layer of complication if something goes wrong, Howard and Casto said, because airlines usually require passengers to make changes and file complaints through their booking agent, and the websites sometimes have different rules around compensation.
Cannon said she’s hoping for a smoother experience on the return trip, and agreed that she would be more careful about buying travel insurance in the future.
“My four4-year-old said, ‘next time can we just take a boat to Hawaii?’ ” she said. “For the other travelers that are out there, either be flexible or drive, or take a boat as my toddler says.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Are you entitled to compensation if your flight is delayed?
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